A close reading paper for English 340, Shakespeare: Later Plays, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Michelle Dowd, written on 12 February 2009 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Iago’s Foul Music
by Matt Wallace
Act 3, Scene 1 of Othello begins with Cassio commanding a group of musicians: “Masters, play here—I will content your pains— / Something that’s brief, and bid ‘Good morrow, general’” (3.1.1-2). A note of irritation and impatience can be heard in these words. Cassio clearly wants the musicians to finish quickly and to be on their way. Apparently, their performance is so offensive that he is compelled to refer to it as “your pains” when he promises to pay them. His dissatisfaction with the musicians is also suggested in that he doesn’t interact with them any further.
As the musicians perform, the Clown enters the scene to pick up where Cassio leaves off and to serve as his proxy. He begins with the first of his insults: “Why, masters, ha’ your instruments been in Naples, / that they speak i’th’ nose thus?” (3.1.3-4). A note to the text explains that the Clown is asking why the instruments “sound so nasal” and suggests that this is “a reference to venereal disease, often associated with Naples, or a phallic or anal joke” (2149). The Clown appears to be suggesting that the musicians are so bad because they are playing with diseased instruments, read infected penises.
In the first of the Clown’s insults, Shakespeare uses the musicians who play badly as a metaphor for men who use their sexuality improperly and let their sexuality use them. Such men end up playing with diseased instruments, both their genitals and their minds. Othello, Roderigo, and Iago are all victims of the ultimate male venereal disease: jealousy and fear of female infidelity. This affliction is the ultimate source and cause of the tragedy which unfolds in the play.
After the Musician asks for clarification, the Clown continues with the second of his insults: “Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?” (3.1.6). This begins an exchange which, as the textual note indicates, “depends on the connection between wind instruments, flatulence, and ‘tale/tail’” (2149). After the Musician affirms the Clown’s observation, the Clown replies: “O, thereby hangs a tail”(3.1.8). The Clown is clearly referring to the anus, thus suggesting that the musicians’ playing sounded like flatulence, hence it also stunk. The Musician fails to distinguish between the homonyms and asks: “Whereby hangs a tale, sir?” (3.1.9). The Clown recognizes the homonym and retorts: “Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know” (3.1.10). The Clown is relying on the notion of talking out of one’s hindquarters, the uttering of falsehoods ranging from simple exaggerations to outright lies, all of which have their own peculiar stench about them.
With the second compound insult, Shakespeare uses flatulence as a metaphor for the lies used to manipulate sexuality, especially the lies of Iago. Iago plays on Othello’s jealousy and on his fear of Desdemona’s infidelity given his insecurities in their differences in age, race, and nationality. Iago uses both Roderigo’s love for Desdemona and his jealousy of both Othello and Cassio to goad Roderigo into an attempt on Cassio’s life. Ironically, Iago, the master manipulator of jealousy in other men, is himself a victim of his own lies in that he wrongly fears Emilia is involved with both Othello and Cassio. Every lie carries a stench, but Iago’s lies are particularly rank as they lead to the deaths of two blameless women.
The Clown delivers his third and final insult as he pays the musicians: “But / masters, here’s money for you, and the general so likes your / music, that he desires you, for love’s sake, to make no more / noise with it” (3.1.10-13). The Clown is implying that the musicians play their instruments so badly that they cannot produce proper music, only noise. Interestingly, the Clown indicates that Cassio wants the musicians to cease their noise not for his sake, but for the sake of love.
In the Clown’s third and final insult, Shakespeare uses “noise” as a metaphor for the male misuse of sexuality and “music” as a metaphor for love. He is suggesting that men cease making “noise” unless they can make “music” with their “instruments.”
In Act 3, Scene 1 of Othello, Shakespeare uses bad musicians and their foul music as a three-pronged metaphor: a warning against the ultimate venereal disease of jealousy; a condemnation of the lies used to manipulate sexuality; and an appeal to love as the ultimate remedy. Thus this brief comedic scene serves an important function in the play by emphasizing its primary themes. At the end of the play, Lodovico gives the captive Iago over to Cassio and instructs him: “To you, Lord Governor, / Remains the censure of this hellish villain. / The time, the place, the torture, O, enforce it!” (5.2.377-379). Though the action occurs outside the play, Cassio undoubtedly carries out the execution. Just as he properly rewarded the musicians to end their foul music, Cassio properly rewards Iago and puts an end his foul music.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 2nd ed.
New York: Norton, 2008. 2119-2191.